These stories illustrate two features of the situation
described by Paul Gilk in his book "Nature's Unruly Mob"
- a rather obscure title for a book about a vital problem affecting
us all - how food is grown, distributed, processed and eaten.
Here are two real stories.
In Britain up
and down the country farmers who sell milk are going out of business.
Farms that have been in the same family for several generations
are closing their dairy herds and milking parlours. The reason
is quite well known. The price these farmers are offered for
the milk they produce is below the costs of production, even
by cutting those to the bone, as they say. Is this a free market?
So it is said. But who are the buyers? Four or five nationwide
supermarket businesses. Their buyers can in reality control the
price by the power of not having any alternative outlet. Economists
describe a market in which there is only one producer as a monopoly.
This is near the opposite - a market in which there is only one
buyer, a monopsony or oligopsony - few buyers.
In a monopoly
the producer tends to raise his prices to whatever he can get
away with and the buyers have no choice. In a Monopsony it is the producers who have
no choice. (And when they formed cooperatives the right wing
governments of both Thatcher and Blair encouraged them to convert
these to a "normal" shareholders company, which then
went bust. It seems that at present only companies with shareholders
are considered "legitimate"). This has at least something
in common with feudalism (lack of real choice).
Another story. For years school meals in Britain have
been held down in price so that only the very cheapest food is
used for them, regardless of whether it is actually good for
children to eat. A well-known tv chef, Jamie Oliver, investigated
what his children were actually eating at school and decided
it wasn't what any parent should want. He noted that one of the
types of food on offer was Turkey Twizzlers, a kind of reconstituted
food from unknown parts of the turkey, supplied by the biggest
agri-business producer of intensively reared turkeys. (No names,
no law suits).
He started a campaign for better cooking in schools,
using better ingredients. With the help of the Channel 4 tv company
he started a campaign to improve school meals by training school
cooks to use real ingredients. He devised inexpensive meals using
good ingredients. He even gained support from the then prime
minister Tony Blair and schools ministers and extracted some
money from the Treasury under Gordon Brown. Gradually the message
of better food spread and many schools adopted the new methods
- in many cases a return to the practices of the past: cooking
food on the premises (instead of having it delivered in lorries),
using fresh produce bought from local suppliers.
But. Did the children like the better food being offered?
The numbers of children eating the new school meals went down
and many preferred to sneak out of school to buy at the fast
food suppliers. Schools tried to prevent the students from leaving
the school grounds, but some parents even sent in chips and burgers
over the fence, as though their children were in prison and being
tortured with poisonous food.
Many people have been so accustomed to the cheap food supplied
in supermarkets or sold in fast food outlets that they can't
recognise the attempt to provide vegetables and fresh materials
Here, too, governments have encouraged or forced schools and
public bodies to "outsource" these services to companies
with shareholders, who have no interest in the effects of their
activities except for the money they make.
The general World
Problem has many implications which are manifested in every
aspect of human culture.
Among these are the patterns of settlement - low density suburbia
is not likely to be livable as we abandon fossil fuels. Quite
possibly the Powers That Be are aware of this and are terrified
of revealing it to people. Possibly they are as blind as they
seem - or are so much under the control of the Corporations that they cannot reveal what needs to be done.
Our whole food production system at every stage needs a great
deal of fossil fuel to make it run. Fertilisers need energy,
derived mostly from oil and coal; the huge farm machines run
on oil; the processing consumes energy. Transport from one end
of the country to the other uses large amounts of energy. Can
this fossil input be replaced by income energy? If so, what would be the
consequences? Always we have to consider the unprecedented number
of humans alive now and calculated to be alive in the future.
How can we feed them? We aren't feeding them all now. The agri-business
advocates claim we can't feed people without even more intensive
agriculture. Are they right?
Is it food?
Another question is whether the "food" that is produced
by this huge oil consuming machine is really nutrition, in the
sense of being what humans need to lead healthy lives. Organic
producers espouse the idea that before industrial agriculture
the soil had many qualities that were needed to grow healthy
food, many of which were ignored by the modern theory of agriculture.
Probably the most important of these soil components is "trace
elements" (or micronutrients). The whole complex of organic
ideas is based on the concept that industrial agriculture has
deprived the soil of qualities necessary for health, and that
their absence produces a great deal ill health in the humans
who have become dependent on this "food".
In the late 19th century it was observed that if plants were
given supplies of nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium (NPK) -
often derived as by-products of such industries as steel making
- they grew faster and bigger. The conclusion was that this extra
produce had simply enlarged the amount of food available for
humans and was therefore an unqualified Good Thing. At the time
nobody knew that there was another question that ought to have
been asked: was the plant that had been stimulated by these chemicals
still of the same quality as humans have been accustomed to eating
throughout their evolution? Since the theory of NPK fertiliser
was first proposed many of us have come to realise that there
is evidence that the resulting produce is not actually food but
what José Bové calls Malbouffe - bad nutrition (or false food).
Trace elements (Micro-nutrients)
One element that tends to go missing in industrial soil is Selenium.
Small quantities of this element seem to be essential for protecting
people from degenerative diseases such as cancer. Some British
soils are naturally deficient in Selenium and the populations
dependent on this soil have higher rates of cancer. (The ice
sheets scraped the selenium out of some soils, and deposited
it elsewhere.) Other soils had traditionally a higher proportion.
Another quality of the soil that changes when it is industrialised
is the humus content. Writers and scientists in the Organic tradition,
notable Sir Albert Howard, one of the founders of the British
Soil Association, now the main standard setter for organic farming
in Britain, emphasised the role of soil fungi growing in the
soil complex in the growth of plants including crops for food.
These advocates were sneered at by the "modernist"
school as believing in "muck and magic", but really
their beliefs can be supported by experiment.
Howard found, while Director General of Agriculture for India,
that well-fed cattle in India did not get Foot and Mouth disease
from infected cattle even when they had opportunity to be together.
His conclusion was this disease is actually a symptom of bad
soil, and so was Coffee Berry Disease, later again shown by Tim
Hutchinson in Kenya to be cured by humus rich soil fed by his
It is a quite rational response to finding that soils lack trace
elements to want to put the missing or depleted elements back.
One useful way to do this is by spreading crushed igneous rock
dust on to the fields. This tends to produce the sort of soil
found near volcanoes - the reason that volcanoes attract farmers,
despite the dangers of being blown up every few years. The wines
of the slopes of Vesuvius are famous for their taste. Rock dust
can restore the soil.
Social aspects of farming
Traditional pre-industrial farming employed a lot of people (at
very low wages). These people transmitted a culture, rich in
stories and practices, that in Britain at least could often be
traced back to time immemorial - beyond the historical horizon,
even into pre-Saxon times. Of course most of this culture was
dissipated when industrial methods came to farms: tractors instead
of horses, harvesting machines, threshing machines, combine harvesters
and all the other machinery needed now. Each innovation removed
people from the land and sent them to live in the new industrial
slums. An acreage that once employed 100 farm workers may now
be managed by two or three, with some occasional contractors.
Indeed, in Britain it is common for many tasks on a farm to be
performed not by permanent workers belonging to the farm and
village but by migrant workers from eastern Europe or even further
afield such as China, managed by Gang Masters (not far off slave
drivers). It is hard not to be reminded of what happened to ancient
Rome as family owned farms were replaced by Latifundia, operated
by workers with no rights at all - slaves. The Gracchi brothers
were spokesmen for the people displaced by these practices. They
failed to reduce the influence of slavery. How far is our modern
agri-business analogous to that ancient Roman problem, which
it can be argued brought down the Republic and ushered in the
Empire - a military dictatorship run entirely in the interest
of the super-rich or their military mercenaries? How did the
Latifundia do this? By dissipating the solidarity that caused
all citizens to work together for the common good - what Ibn Khaldun called
Paul Gilk's book is a new and revised edition of the book first
published in 1986. Since then agriculture has continued to change,
with fewer family farms and more and bigger agri-businesses.
In Britain, notoriously, supermarkets control much of what farmers
do by specifying the details of what they must produce and requiring
their standards for the size and appearance of produce, making
a proportion of the harvest unsalable (funny shaped potatoes
or carrots, slightly imperfect apples). They also bear down on
the price. As supermarkets are huge buyers and there is little
competition between a small number of these monopsonist buyers,
farmers, who traditionally find it difficult to combine together
in their own interest, find themselves reduced to tiny profit
margins, or even selling such produce as milk and bacon at a
loss - receiving less than the costs of production.
This situation favours huge farms run like factories, controlling
ruthlessly the costs, one of which is Labour. Local people refuse
to work at the wages offered, and very cheap foreign workers
are brought in by Labour Contractors. Frequently the media expose
the workers' conditions as being hardly better than slavery,
often cheated out of their wages and housed in shacks. Government
and European Union rules on working conditions are seldom enforced
by an inadequate number of Inspectors.
Another notorious consequence of this economic straitjacket
is the recently publicised practice of killing male calves soon
after birth as being unsalable. At best they are used to feed
In the United States giant feedlots of meat animals have replaced
farms. Often the animal waste products of these factories are
simply discharged into the environment, causing the ordinary
citizens to pay in their property taxes to clean them and deal
with the consequences. Why don't these businesses use the waste
products to make biogas
for energy and fertiliser to return them to the soil? A good
question, which goes to the heart of the agricultural problem.
The animals who experience these industrial processes also
suffer from new diseases. How far are these diseases, including
Foot and Mouth, BSE (mad cow disease) the result of the methods
of production? Governments seem unable to ask this question and
a huge industry is devoted to attempted cures, of the symptoms
rather than the probable cause. The big businesses owning these
feedlots and the battery chicken farms, bribe government officials
at the highest level not to regulate them, or to impose taxes
on the waste products, or honest tests on the food value of what
comes out. They like to use growth hormones (in the US, but forbidden
in the EU) regardless of what effect they have on the humans
who eat the meat. The antibiotics given to the animals routinely
have caused many bacteria to become resistant, something that
will soon make several human diseases impossible to treat with
common antibiotics, and perhaps not at all.
Questions the food industry doesn't even want asked are: does
bad food affect children's behaviour in schools? Does it affect
ability to learn? Does it cause low level bad health, and major
diseases such as diabetes and cancer? And of course Obesity.
One might even wonder whether the epidemic of drug taking in
western societies is related to western food lacking vital qualities?
Prisoners have been shown to improve their behaviour when fed
organic food (experiments which usually come to an end because
the Prison authorities can't or won't afford the higher cost
José Bové belongs to a culture of excellence in food.
He quite rightly asks the question of what effect these "Anglo-Saxon"
farming practices have on the quality of food for people. The
quality of food in French schools is world-renowned - a menu
has to be posted at the school gates for all to see. (The author
has experienced the food served in a Lycée in France and
felt immensely healthy after it.) The Fast Food producers, which
are one of his targets, encourage the industrial production of
meat - indeed, require it. But Fast Food has come to France,
even if not on the scale of other countries. Bové is leading
a campaign against it.
Paul Gilk belongs to the progressive farmer tradition of Wisconsin.
He attributes these effects on agriculture to the lack of solidarity
people experience by living in societies where radical individualism has become the dominant philosophy.
Joint stock companies are supposed to be the best method of organising
the economy. But we can see that when they provide human services
of which food growing and eating is vital, they
don't behave in our best interests. Gilk does not hesitate to
Lewis Mumford, William Morris, Paul Goodman and Carl Jung. He
asks what are the effects on society of the alienation between
consumer and farmer, illustrated by the Jamie Oliver story when
he found that children often have no idea where their food comes
from, beyond the fast food shop. Attempts to make school meals
slightly healthier in Britain in recent years have met with resistance
from children who prefer the junk food, and even from parents
some of whom attempt to sneak malbouffe into the schools for
their own children. Even the tradition of home cooking has died in many homes
and been replaced by fast junk food and processed foods from
Cindy Engel has written an important book. She surveys
what is known about animal feeding behaviour (including her own research) and shows that animals
can make use of their environment to correct nutritional lacks
by eating plants not in their usual repertoire, or eating certain
minerals that may correct things they are missing. She suggests
humans are in the same position as domesticated animals that
usually have no access to these substances. They get sick and
can't easily self-medicate.
Here's another shocking story: the destruction of ordinary
In the 19th century in Britain ordinary people, making use
of the Methodist tradition of mutual self-help, devised alternatives
to the system which oppressed them. They devised Building Societies
to put their money to use to help each other build decent homes
(which the factory owners seldom had any interest in doing -
Robert Owen and Titus Salt, being well known exceptions). They
built up the cooperative consumer societies mainly to
avoid the problems of poisoned food sold in the conventional
shops, they combined in Trade Unions which didn't just campaign
on wages but also provided many other services. The Co-ops bought
farms to grow decent food under their own control. To save for
their old age they devised Friendly Societies. These organisations
were the basis of a possible economy quite different from our
modern situation, dominated as it is by huge anonymous corporations
sucking the profit away to the super-rich. It is easy to see
why all these institutions, which belonged to ordinary people,
have been destroyed, especially by the Reagan and Thatcher governments.
It is also easy to see who gained from this destruction - the
The Building Societies were encouraged to become banks, owned
by shareholders instead of by the members - but first they grew
so large by mergers that the members no longer regarded them
as mutual bodies under their control - small building societies
that remained independent have mostly continued to be successful.
In Britain every one of the former large building societies that
converted has failed, gone bankrupt, been taken over by bigger
banks or foreign banks. That's a story we won't continue here.
But when the Building Societies did change they changed in their
attitude to their customers, no longer members but marks, to
be cheated whenever possible (sub-prime mortgages, anyone?).
Race Mathews (former Labor Minister in the
state of Victoria) explains how the building societies were converted,
by their own corrupted employees.
By the way, this is not Marxism. Marx never understood how this
Methodist-derived culture worked. He misunderstood the British
Working Class Movement, especially its democracy. But after all,
why should he understand it? He was the financial dependent of
Friedrich Engels, an employer.
The final destruction of course was that of the Labour Party,
originally the pinnacle of these mutual organisations. "New
Labour" took its money from big business, and sneered at
the Trade Unions, one of the few remaining survivors of the alternative
economy. In the United States the Farmer-Labor party was stamped on much
earlier and never even allowed to become influential.
Can ordinary people recreate a 21st century version of the
mutual economy? Probably only that can be the real solution to
the problems Gilk describes.
The author buys almost no food in the supermarket - sugar and
fruit juice about covers it. He buys most things in the Farmers'
Market where one can ask the seller where it comes from and what
methods were used. And every meal contains something grown in
the garden (treated with volcanic rock dust). 2009 has seen an
excellent crop of potatoes.
| The Big Problem
Probably the world's human population has increased beyond what the
of the planet can support. "Experts" are always telling
us that organic agriculture cannot feed all the people we have
at present, and are likely to have in the near future. This may
or may not be true. (Usually the people telling us this are committed
to various policies they believe are based on science and backed
with lots of money.) If it is true it indicates that the mass
of people are condemned to eat sub-standard food. Fortunately
there are some signs that world population may decline after
a peak in the 21st century. (See Fred Pearce)
Gilk - Nature's Unruly Mob
Nature's Unruly Mob: Farming and the Crisis
in Rural Culture
Bové - Le Monde n'est pas une marchandise. ...
The World is Not for Sale: Farmers Against Junk Food
The Soil and Health: A Study of Organic Agriculture (Culture
of the Land):
Mein landwirtschaftliches Testament
Harold Gotaas - Biogas
Composting Sanitary Disposal & Reclamation
DVD - Food,
A film about industrial agriculture and its effects on us, and
the politics and money
Race Mathews - Jobs of our own
description of Mondragon and other cooperatives
Jobs of Our Own: Building a Stake-Holder
Paul Goodman - Growing up absurd
Growing Up Absurd
Drawing the Line Once Again: Paul Goodman's Anarchist Writings
Das Verhängnis der Schule.
Cindy Engel - Wild Health
Wild Health: How Animals Keep Themselves
Well and What We Can Learn from Them
Wild Health: Gesundheit aus der Wildnis. Wie Tiere sich selbst
gesund erhalten und was wir von ihnen lernen können
Food is Different: Why We Must Get the WTO Out of Agriculture
wife has a useful web site
Your Own Food And Medicine
George Monbiot on Peasant farming
Pearce - Peoplequake
Peoplequake: Mass Migration, Ageing Nations and the Coming Population
L T C
Rolt - High Horse Riderless
High Horse Riderless (Green Classics)
Craftsmanship and engineering, faults in our industrial civilisation